Below is an account from Sayaka, a reporter over at our sister site Pouch. It is an intriguing look at differences in business culture between Japan and the west. It makes one realize that there is no perfect business strategy as such but by incorporating the best parts from each culture, one can get pretty close to their own perfect business model. Moreover, Japan’s business culture has to be one of the most unique in the entire world.

Just the other day I had the privilege of liaising with several western businessmen who gave me some rather interesting views relating to differences in business customs between Japan and the West. They mentioned having recently listened to a lecture before coming to Japan on how to conduct business the Japanese way. Something that really stood out to me were their impressions of the Japanese business culture as a whole:

“Out of all the countries we’ve visited so far, Japan’s business culture has got to be the most uniquely different.”

Those who took part in the business lecture included two Frenchmen, an Englishman and an American. All four men worked in such high power roles as international manufacturing or as planning designers at construction companies. They are the type of elite that upon coming to Japan enter into managerial positions giving Japanese workers orders and undertaking transactions with other high-ranking Japanese companies. Their period of employment is usually no longer than a year and a half, after which they often shift to positions in other countries.

Below, I would like to introduce the five most interesting things from the lecture imparted to me by the foreign businessmen.

1.) If a Japanese person says they can complete the job, it is best to take them on face value.

Many may think “what’s so surprising about that!?” However, looking at trends on the foreign market, a lot of workers claim to be able to complete a given task even when it clearly exceeds their capabilities. The businessman from England commented that in contrast to their foreign counterparts, the Japanese modestly accept the job at hand while delivering exceptional results.

He went on to comment:

“With regard to suppliers in Japan, workers have a clear comprehension of the production scale and necessary production time. Whether it be the person who places the order from the supplier, or those who deal with the transaction thereafter, from beginning to end the level of service is consistently high. If we look at Western business culture, incompletion of a task within the designated period often sees the  worker placing the blame on the boss by claiming that his directions weren’t clear. Thus, for the Western worker, one can, to some degree, avoid responsibility.

Contrastingly, in Japan, if business doesn’t go according to plan, it becomes the problem of the individual undertaking the task. What’s more, the Japanese deliver a service that goes far beyond what was originally requested, leaving many customers very satisfied. The fact they carry out the job with consistency means they are easy to work with.”

2.) From a Japanese perspective, the customer is God.

According to the American businessman:

“Westerners, particularly the French, tend to go by the ideology that the customer and customer service are on an equal footing. This takes root through the idea that one is exchanging money for a service and the view that both are equal components. In this way, it is seen as fully acceptable for the person providing the service to declare from the outset that they refuse to do something as they see fit. However, in Japan customer service is paramount, which also has the benefit of keeping the customer happy and maintaining healthy mutual relations.”

Nevertheless, he does have one suggestion for improvement when it comes to Japanese business ethics.

“The reservation of both the customer and supplier not to offend the other party is perhaps a little too strong. In order to produce the best result, speaking one’s mind more is what’s required.”

3.) For the Japanese, the company conference room is not a place for discussion but rather somewhere to report progress.

From a westerner’s viewpoint, a meeting room is a place for discussion about current work projects and serves as place to dedicate time to reach a conclusion about something. Many westerners find the idea that Japanese workers use the conference room simply to report findings rather bewildering.

However, one French businessman takes a more positive approach to this style of conduct:

“This is all part of Japan’s product efficiency and when you think about it, contacting the parties involved and reaching a decision before the meeting can actually have the benefit of making everything go more smoothly in the meeting room itself.”

On a negative note, he commented that due to the nature of the Japanese meeting room, even when asked their opinion, few people ever feel inclined to respond honestly.

4.) A delay in reaching a decision is a not a reflection of a Japanese person’s inefficiency.

At first I was a little taken aback by what I thought was criticism of the speed at which Japanese work, but as the second French businessman explained,

“It is difficult to deny that the Japanese take time to reach a decision, however this is by no means a reflection of inefficiency. Rather, it has to do with a difference in the decision making process.”

He then went on to give an example:

“Let’s say you have a financial budget of 500,000 yen. You’re looking to request the work of an outside company and have two months to complete the task. Imagine that you have the option of considering four different companies. Company A estimates that it can complete the work in two months for 500,000 yen. Company B estimates 2.5 months at 480,000 yen. Company C estimates two months at 490,000 yen. Lastly, company D estimates over a course of a month and a half that it can complete the project for 50,000 yen.

In the case of the French company, company A and B would be dismissed as possible contenders almost immediately, with only C and D remaining. However, from a Japanese perspective one would consider each company on their individual merits. Increase the budget by 500,000 yen or extend the work for an extra two weeks, are factors that would also enter into the consideration process. Ultimately, the priority lies with the company that provides the best service. Therefore for the Japanese, the entire decision making process takes considerably longer.”

Theoretically, calculating one’s budget and the completion period also takes time. The French therefore view paying too much attention to which company to use a waste of time. In other words, a French company treats the job at hand with great importance and upon reaching a decision is reticent to negotiate or return to a previous deliberation process. However by looking back on their decisions and considering how it could affect the overall result, the Japanese demonstrate a clear focus on the end result rather than the decision-making process itself.”

This same French businessman mentioned that after actually having worked with the Japanese, what the lecture taught him was correct.

“I can’t help but admire the spirit with which the Japanese strive for high quality.”

5.) Alcohol allows many Japanese to reveal their true thoughts, however drinking with business colleagues is also regarded as work.

From a Western perspective, a beer with your work colleagues after a hard day’s work is only something that you do with those you are close with. However, from the lecture, it is recommended for anyone working in Japan to make a positive effort to go drinking with your sub-ordinates. The reason being that alcohol helps us relax and allows us to share opinions that we keep to ourselves in the work place. During the daytime conference meeting, a subordinate may have seemed to agree with a particular decision, but after a few drinks it becomes clear that his feelings couldn’t be more to the contrary.

The English businessman added another comment about what he learned from the lecture:

“It’s not like you’re in a company meeting saying all these things. Speaking what’s on your mind doesn’t hinder your reputation and it certainly doesn’t make any one get mad at you.”

Returning back to the French businessman’s comments:

“I’ve worked in many countries before but there are only two business cultures that stand out as being so remarkably different. One of them is India. The other one is Japan. From the way people work, the process of decision making and the fine attention to detail, there are many things to be learned from Japan’s business world.”

Admittedly not all these Japanese business traits can be applied to the Japanese youth of today, but after hearing about the lecture from the foreign businessmen the following things became apparent to me:

Maintaining the aspects of Japanese business deemed as virtuous in the lecture and discarding of the areas that received criticism can be advantageous. In addition, when working with colleagues from the western world, being adaptable to alternative working methods might also be beneficial.
[ Read in Japanese ]